Local business leaders got an opportunity to see how much of a challenge it is to conduct government remotely Thursday.
The Rome Floyd Chamber conducted its annual pre-legislative breakfast Thursday by Zoom and state Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, made a point of telling participants how difficult it is to communicate with other lawmakers and constituents by videoconference.
Dempsey said that, typically, much works gets done outside the chambers of the legislature.
“The receptions ... that won’t be taking place, dinners — we’re not even probably going to take ourselves out to dinner this year while we’re there,” Dempsey said.
The Georgia General Assembly starts its 2021 session on Monday.
Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, told chamber members that state revenues are up over half a billion dollars through the first five months of the fiscal year — but that there is a concern about a potential slowdown during the first quarter of 2021.
“We were looking back in March or April, thinking we might be several billion down,” Hufstetler said.
The recently passed stimulus at the federal level should help some, he said, but sooner or later the national debt is going to have to be addressed.
“We spend more now on interest than we do on Medicaid, and in a couple of years it’s going to be more than defense,” Hufstetler said
If interest rates were to rise to 6% or 7% for the federal government, it would take the entire budget to make the payments, he noted.
“That to me is the biggest threat to our economy right now,” he said.
Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, said he could foresee action in the upcoming session to do away with no-excuse absentee voting — a move he said might be beneficial in making sure that elections are transparent and accurate.
Voicing support for the potential change, Dempsey said she keeps hearing that people are wary about the absentee voting process.
“People do not feel good here. The messages are constant, they do not feel good about trust in our electoral process, so we will step up,” Dempsey said.
Later on Thursday, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said at a new conference he may not support any legislative moves to require Georgians to give specific reasons for requesting mail-in ballots.
All three local lawmakers said they anticipate a special session later in the year for the purpose of redistricting — drawing new voting district lines based on the 2020 census numbers.
The process is formula- and population-driven, Hufstetler said, adding that the state’s urban areas are where a large segment of population growth has taken place.
The Georgia General Assembly has a full-time staff that is devoted to redistricting.
Rome City Schools Superintendent Lou Byars and Floyd County Superintendent Glenn White each implored the legislators not to tinker with the Teacher Retirement System. They said it has been one of the most valuable tools in attracting and retaining teachers.
Hufstetler said any decision regarding education funding would be revenue-driven, and that he has continued to push hard for the state to make sure it collects everything that is due.
“Instead of fighting over where the cut goes, I push hard to grow the pie,” Hufstetler said.
Questioned about the future of the Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital property in West Rome, Dempsey said the HOPE Village concept put forth by Jeff and Mary Margaret Mauer at Global Impact International is still very much on the table.
“The (bond payments) on the property have been greatly reduced,” Dempsey said. “I think we’re real close. ... We really wanted it off the budget for this year if all possible, but that’s not going to happen.”
The money the state allocates to maintain the property should be used for people with true needs, Dempsey said.